By Philip Pullella
ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (Reuters) - At 36,000 feet, it was a marriage almost made in heaven.
In the first such ceremony on a papal flight, Pope Francis performed a wedding for a steward and stewardess while flying between two Chilean cities on Thursday.
Paula Podest Ruiz, 39, and Carlos Ciuffardi Elorriga, 41, who had a civil union eight years ago, told the pope that a religious ceremony that was to follow was cancelled after their parish church in Santiago was heavily damaged in an earthquake in 2010.
They asked him to bless their marriage. But he had something else in mind.
"We told him that we are husband and wife. That we have two daughters and that we would have loved to receive his blessing. All of a sudden, he asked us if we were married for the Church too," Ciuffardi told reporters afterwards on the plane, which was en route to the northern city of Iquique from Santiago.
The couple explained to the pope how the 2010 earthquake had damaged the church they had hoped to marry in.
"He liked us and he asked: 'Do you want me to marry you?' He asked: 'Are you sure?,'” Podest said. "'Yes of course,' we said."
The pope performed the brief ceremony in the front of the plane. Ignacio Cueto, president of Latam airlines, who was on board, was the witness.
An improvised marriage certificate was signed by the pope, the couple, Cueto and a bishop who was on the plane.
"Being married by a pope on board a flight is something priceless," Podest said.
"I asked him: 'Do you marry people?' He said: 'Yes, from time to time. I have married 40 couples. But never has a pope married somebody on a flight,” she said.
When the beaming couple emerged from the front section of the plane, some reporters in the rear section at first thought it was a practical joke.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke came out a minute later to confirm it all.
"Everything is valid. Everything is official," he said. He later sent reporters a picture of the marriage certificate.
"We had a short and small ceremony. He took our hands and he asked if there was love in our marriage and if we want to keep on being together all life long," Ciuffardi said.
Podest told reporters and the pope that the couple had met on a flight when she was his boss, adding: "I am still his boss."
(Editing by Bernadette Baum)